German Expressionism

What is German Expressionism in Film? [Definition & Examples]

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German Expressionism in film was a creative movement in the early 20th century. It focused on the artist’s inner emotions rather than showing film realism

You can find this movement in all art forms, including writing, dance, and painting. What made this art movement stand out was its unique dream like stories. 

These films had a huge effect on the future of film. They changed how people viewed film as an art form and inspired many modern film directors. Below you will learn everything you need to know about this German Expressionism, including a breakdown of the definition and examples. 

What is Expressionism?

Expressionism is an art movement that first started with writing and painting. It began in the early 1920s after world war I in response to changing lifestyles and struggles. In all art forms, this movement is about dreams, emotions, and movement. In contrast to realism which tells real life stories about real people. 

The most famous example of expressionism is the painting The Scream by Edvard Munnk. This iconic image shows a man on a bridge holding his hands to his face as he screams. The painting is about anxiety and mental illness. The lack of realism is what makes this painting expressionistic. 

The Scream by Edward Munch

This style was popular in the 1920s and 1930s, ending before world war II. During this time, it spread across the world and was the leading art style. The main contributor to art expressionism was Germany which at the time was also the center of the film industry.

What is German Expressionism?

At the start of the 20th century, Germany was the world center of filmmaking. Silent cinema made selling films worldwide easier because there was no language barrier.

However, in the 1920s, Germany started to cut itself off from the world and by 1921 they had banned all overseas films. As a result, there was a big demand for home filmmaking. German Expressionism in film spread from 24 films in 1914 to 130 films in 1921.

In 1931 the Nazis gained power, and many German filmmakers moved to Hollywood, causing an end to the movement. This movement had a big impact on the history of cinema. In particular, it created horror films and allowed filmmaking to grow as an art form.

German Expressionism Elements                            

German Expressionism is an early cinema movement with a distinctive style. Overall, it’s the visual elements that make these films stand out compared to other silent films. Let’s explore these elements in detail and include examples for each of them.

1. Set Design

German Expressionism set design

One important part of German Expressionism in film is the mise en scene. The stage design and backdrops in these films are highly distinctive. They feature warped rooms, busy painted backdrops, and painted skylines. In contrast, to realism which would shoot on real life locations.

German filmmakers avoided natural designs, instead, using harsh shapes and unnatural colors. At first, stage designers created these style sets for theatres before working in film. One good example of this set design is in the film The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920). 

2. Lighting

Chiaroscuro lighting

The German filmmakers also created a new style of lighting called chiaroscuro which took inspiration from Renaissance art. This lighting style is high contrast, low key lighting, with distinct shadows. By using this style you can create more distinct, artistic images. 

Later, when German filmmakers came to Hollywood, they brought with them high contrast lighting. You can find this lighting style in films throughout the 1930s and 1940s. For example, in many of the early films by British filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock

3. Dutch Angles

Dutch angle in German Expressionism

Dramatic camera angles are also a theme in German Expressionism. In particular, the Dutch angle, which is when you tilt the camera to the side. This tilt can express the emotions and inner turmoil of your characters. For example, madness, unease, and confusion.

German Expressionism in film would use this shot frequently. However, these days you will find it only used for special shots. A good example of Dutch angles is in the silent horror film Nosferatu (1922). In this film the Dutch angle shows the character’s fear and distress.

4. Subject Matter


German Expressionism in film also explored dark subject matter. In particular, themes such as murder, crime, madness, and horror. Before this time, film stories were simple and more straightforward. However, after world war I cinema was more open to taking risks. One German Expressionism film which explores a range of dark themes is Metropolis (1927).

German Expressionism Film Examples

There are hundreds of German Expressionism films despite the movement only lasting 20 years. Some of these films are very famous and helped to define cinematic storytelling. Let’s look at some of the key examples of this movement.

1. The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920)

Our first German Expressionism film example is also arguably the first horror film ever made. Directed by Robert Wiene, it’s about a man who controls a sleepwalker. The style throughout is very typical of this movement creating a dream like effect in contrast to realism.

In this film, the set design stands out the most with jagged landscapes and tiled walls and windows. Everything in the film is titled, including the use of the Dutch angle. All of this shows the inner world of the sleepwalker and creates a surreal effect.

2. Nosferatu (1922)

After the success of The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, German filmmakers made many horror films during the 1920s. Most notably, Nosferatu, by director F.W Murnau is a loose take on Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula. It follows the evil Count Orlok, who scares visitors in his castle.

The film has many scenes that stay true to the horror theme. One of which is when Nosferatu walks down a hallway, casting shadows against the wall. In addition to using high contrast lighting, the film deals with dark themes such as madness and war.

3. Metropolis (1927)

Next, we have a German science fiction film about a city in the future. The film explores themes of social issues and capitalism and mass production. Director Fritz Lang shot the film over 17 months, and at the time it was the most expensive film ever made.

The film is known for its grand set design and art deco style. One of the film’s iconic images is of a robot woman overlooking the city. The filmmakers also use high contrast lighting and Dutch angles throughout making it a great example of German Expressionism in film.

4. M (1931)

Lastly, we have another film by director Fritz Lang. M is about the police chasing a serial killer across Germany. The film explores many dark themes, such as murder, madness, fear, and suffering. In many ways, it is a mirror of the reality of living in Germany at the time.

What makes this film German Expressionism is its use of unique shots and high contrast lighting. Throughout the film, glass and reflective surfaces show the action. In addition, the film is also one of the first examples of thriller and film noir.

German Expressionism Impact

German Expressionism in film has had a big impact on cinema throughout the 20th century. When German filmmakers moved to Hollywood, they brought their unique shooting and lighting style. In addition, the new film genres of horror, thriller, and film noir. 

Today, we can still see the impact of German expressionism in modern cinema. In particular, movies like David Lynch’s Eraserhead (1977) and Tim Burton’s Edward Scissorhands (1990). Thanks to this movement, filmmakers today now have more creative freedom. 

Wrapping Up

To sum up, German Expressionism was an art movement in the 1920s and 1930s. The movement resulted from the aftermath of world war I when artists throughout Europe wanted to express themselves.

German started to churn out surreal and horror films during this time. However, many German filmmakers moved to Hollywood at the start of World War II. As a result, this art movement had a high impact at the start of Hollywood and many films we watch today.

Amy Clarke
Amy Clarke
Amy is a content writer at the Video Collective. She is a former script supervisor and writes about careers in the film industry. Follow her on Facebook.
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